Healthcare systems creaking under COVID-19 caseload

Skyrocketing numbers of COVID-19 cases on the North Olympic Peninsula are straining healthcare systems, according to the region’s public heath officer.

Dr. Allison Berry, health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties, briefed Clallam County commissioners on Tuesday.

“We are unfortunately experiencing continued rapid rises in COVID-19 infections in our community, similar to what we are seeing to the rest of the state and the nation,” Berry said.

“We are also seeing a significant strain on our healthcare system and anticipate that it will continue to worsen.”

Hospitals in both counties have canceled routine procedures, such as a colonoscopy, and are prioritizing emergency procedures so as to free surgical staff to staff the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

Two more deaths were reported on the Peninsula on Tuesday.

Clallam County reported another death from the virus, bringing its total deaths to 83. The victim was an unvaccinated person in her 90s with underlying health conditions.

Jefferson County also reported a death from COVID-19, bringing its total reported deaths from the virus to 21. The victim was an unvaccinated man in his 80s. No information was available as to whether he had underlying health issues that contributed to his death.

Clallam County reported an additional 121 cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing its total to 7,745 from 7,624 with a case rate of 2,164 per 100,000.

Thirteen people have been hospitalized with COVID-19, five in the ICU at Olympic Medical Center with a sixth patient transferred to an ICU in a Kitsap County hospital for more intensive care.

Jefferson County saw an increase in its cases as well, up 19 from Monday, bringing its total to 1,844 from 1,825. The county will update its case rate on Friday.

At least six Jefferson County residents are hospitalized with COVID-19. Five are at Jefferson Healthcare hospital while one has been transferred to a hospital in King County for more intensive care.

“One of the big challenges that we are seeing is that the hospital system cannot take care of even the same number of patients it could this time last year because we have lost so many healthcare workers due to the burnout of having had to manage wave after wave of infection,” Berry said.

Berry also said that the hospital system, despite the best efforts of the providers to stay ahead of this wave, was not built to handle the caseload.

Shortages, delays

As counties reach peak COVID-19 numbers, there will be shortages of beds, testing and staff as well as longer waits to receive care — and potentially the temporary closing of primary and specialty clinics to respond to the growing number of cases.

“If you need health care in the coming weeks, we anticipate that there will be a delay in accessing that health care,” Berry said.

Berry emphasized that this delay has nothing to do with the doctors, nurses and staff themselves who are working hard to get patients the care they need; there’s just not enough of them to do it expediently, she said.

“In the next couple of weeks, we anticipate moving into even more critical shortages, so we may be pulling staff from the primary care setting into the hospital,” Berry said.

“So some clinics may actually close because the people who normally work in the clinics now work in the hospital,” she added.

“That is very likely to happen in the next two weeks,” Berry said.

The distribution of tests, treatments and antiviral drugs will be prioritized to health care workers, those who are symptomatic or who have been exposed to COVID-19.

“We have heard from the governor and the federal government that they plan to increase testing allocations to our area, but we have not received those yet,” Berry said.

“We do have plans to distribute those tests as quickly as possible as soon as we do receive them, but we do still anticipate that there will be a shortfall.”

Distribution of testing will depend on the size of the supply the region receives and will likely be done through county departments of health and other critical access points, especially for those in the more rural parts of the counties.

“If we can get enough, one thing we are looking at is partnering with local libraries for distribution to the public, but we don’t know how many we’re going to get yet,” Berry said.

Treatments also are in short supply.

“We don’t have many therapeutics right now, there is a significant shortage of the treatments for COVID-19 nationally, and even then they are prioritized to different states depending on how bad their COVID outbreaks are,” Berry said.

Washington state was allocated only 1,000 doses. Berry attributed that to the state’s ability to manage the COVID-19 pandemic well but noted that it also places the state at the bottom of the aid distribution list.

“The best thing that you can do to prevent severe outcomes from COVID-19 is get vaccinated,” Berry said.